skip to Main Content
Home of the finest science fiction and science fact

Story Excerpt

Illustrated by Tomislav Tikulin

The Deviltree
by Monalisa Foster

The creature was not the last of its kind, but it had been a very long time since he had seen another like himself. Loneliness had been Deviltree’s unrelenting companion, driving him to the edge of the cliff once more to look out onto the valley below. Tree-devils were a solitary species but also highly intelligent beings, and this particular one was prone to curiosity.

Filling the breathing sacks to full had a satisfying effect, and he held the air within his segmented, dark gray thorax for a few long moments before deflating them.

He reached all four of his scaly, upper limbs to the sky while simultaneously digging into the soil below with what passed for his toes—four sets of them—and flexed. Like the deep breath, the stretching of limbs simply felt good, especially when he needed to center himself or just remind himself that it was good to be alive.

The valley below was experiencing this planet’s warmest season. The distant river cutting through it swelled with a rush of icy, fresh water from the surrounding mountain. The trees’ canopies were full and thick, providing plentiful shade for this planet’s equivalent of birds, insects, and animals.

Deviltree could not remember any other world, although he knew that this was not his world of origin. The memories of his early life faded with each passing season. He’d even stopped making the tally marks on the great white rock by his old lair. It didn’t seem a count worth keeping when he couldn’t remember why he was doing it. Mostly it made him sad, so he had stopped.

He stretched his neck trunk, causing the segmented plates that covered his flesh to part, and swiveled his head from side to side, making it turn almost all the way around. A tree-devil’s head was little more than a continuation of its neck trunk with a vertical slit that opened for breathing and eating. Four sensory organs, two on each side of the slit, performed the functions of sight via compound lenses.

Once again, he was contemplating the need to stretch without really understanding why he was doing it. To him it just felt good and satisfying, and while he didn’t understand the need to do it from on-high where anyone or anything could see him, his instincts drove him to it today just as they had driven the ritual every day for the last thirty planetary revolutions.

He closed his eyes, stretched yet again, and almost missed the thing streaking across the sky, splitting the clear blue with a line of white, a type of cloud Deviltree had never seen before.

Lowering his upper limbs, he tracked the cloud, shifting his vision beyond the spectrum of visible light into the ultraviolet and infrared. The segmented plates and scales that covered his lower and upper limbs, his thorax, and abdomen lifted, as though they were rippling along his body. As they separated from the skin, billions of mimetic particles smaller than motes of dust drifted out from underneath the scales. They surrounded him in a cloud of sparking color—aquamarine and gold, emerald green and orange, indigo and lilac—creating a cloud of sparkling flux.

The enormous energy of the distant sonic boom was like a thunderclap as the white streak above made its way toward the ground, down into the valley below. As the waves of energy reached Deviltree, they passed through his flux, creating waves and ripples that felt like a caress.

It had been a long time since Deviltree had known anything like it. It was so much like when he had first come to consciousness, understood himself as a living thing, that the sense of memory overwhelmed him.

Deviltree wanted more. No, not just wanted: needed, craved.

He reached out, the flux flowing into tendrils until they were one long, thin string, but no matter how far he extended his flux, he could not reach the dissipating streak of white falling toward the valley. All the particles told him was that the humidity of the air, the taste of it, was not a threat.

He remembered reaching for the pinpricks of light that pierced the darkness of night and failing to touch those sparkling embers too. Those lights were not like the fire that sometimes consumed the forest after a sky-cutter crashed. And the distant embers were not like the branches of lightning that sparked and reached down from the sky during storms either.

Deviltree liked all those things—the taste of the storms, the enormous electrical and magnetic fields that the lightning strikes created. It even liked the feel of the water falling from the sky. But the fire that lightning or a sky-cutter sometimes ignited was not Deviltree’s friend. The chemical reaction known as fire could consume and destroy his flux. Fire could not be sampled, nor mimicked, despite being chemical in nature, and he didn’t understand why.

He didn’t like it when fire destroyed his flux. He needed his particles, his flux, to survive and protect himself, to hunt. Losing too much flux and then making more always weakened him, and he didn’t like being weak and defenseless.

He wondered if this thing that had cut through the sky and reached down into the valley was like the lightning or like the other sky-cutters he’d seen from time to time. Or was it something else? There was no fire, no smoke. The sound waves the mysterious thing had generated were not like those of lighting—similar, yes, but different.

Different was good. Different was interesting.

Deviltree drew his flux back into himself, creating a swirling vortex of matter that coalesced around and hid his eight-limbed body. He stood there at the edge of the cliff, looking down into the valley for a long time until curiosity got the better of him.

As the triple suns set, following each other behind the mountains, a herd of eight-legs came to the edge of the cliff to feed on the surrounding grasses. One of the eight-legs bumped up against Deviltree and looked up at him with its black-and-yellow eyes. Shiny, black bodies stood out against the bluish-green grass, shimmering in the dying light.

Deviltree lowered himself so his upper limbs touched the ground. He pivoted his limbs until they were radially distributed around his thorax and abdomen. He called the flux out once again, forcing the colors of the particles to black, until they cloaked him in darkness and he looked like a young eight-leg.

So configured, he rolled in their dung to enhance his mimicry, shook himself off and joined the herd. He had done so before, many times, when he’d needed to hide. It was a familiar shape, one he didn’t need to reach out and sample again. It wasn’t always a good plan, as there were other predators out there, ones who hunted the eight-legs, but the eight-legs would move down into the valley, toward the river, and that was the direction where the sky-cutter was.

Hidden among the herd of eight-legs, Deviltree would go into the valley in search of the sky-cutter. And if the eight-legs changed direction before they got to where he wanted to go, he would break away and seek the sky-cutter on his own.

*   *   *

Masaki’s knuckles were still white as she held onto the acceleration seat’s armrests like her life depended on it. The Yeager had made a safe, if turbulent, landing, that much was clear. Both Carter Sanou, the Yeager’s captain and pilot, and the copilot Karolina Panuski were making oral entries into their logs in calm, everyday voices, like they just hadn’t almost died.

Framed by the cockpit’s seemingly endless array of controls and monitors, Carter threw a look over his shoulder, dark eyes sparkling in a dark face. He grinned, revealing stark, white teeth.

“Told you there was nothing to worry about.” He had a deep, rich voice that Masaki usually found reassuring. And she would, undoubtedly, find it so again, just as soon as her stomach caught up with her. She was pretty sure that they had left it behind, somewhere in the atmosphere, when it had crawled its way up her screaming throat because they’d hit what Carter had dismissed as “a little chop.”

“You can let go of the armrests,” he said as he pushed up and out of the pilot’s chair.

Masaki looked down at the armrests. Her fingers were so numb she couldn’t feel them, much less make them move.

“Just give me a minute,” she said. “Or ten.”

A skeptical look settled on Carter’s face. “Very well. We have to check the exterior.” He moved past Masaki, and she heard his confident footsteps as he took the ladder down to the shuttle’s cargo hold.

Karolina finished flipping switches and talking to the Yeager’s computer. Unfortunately, a combination of beak-like nose, weak chin, and her short, blond bob made her look a bit like a turtle. Masaki flushed with embarrassment at the unkind thought.

“You all right?” Karolina asked. “For what it’s worth, you just went from green-tinged to red-tinged to white-as-a-sheet.”

Masaki nodded. “Yeah. Lots of feelings right now. Just give me a few moments.”

Karolina stood and reached into one of her flight suit’s thigh pockets. She pulled out a familiar light-blue package.

“If you need to throw up, it’s better to do it in here.” She dropped the barf-bag in Masaki’s lap and headed for the rear.

Masaki closed her eyes, banged her head against the padded headrest, and counted backward from ten all while taking deep cleansing breaths. By the time she was done, she didn’t feel too much like barfing, and she had loosened her grip on the armrests.

Experience was supposed to make this easier. This was her third flight down from the starship in a shuttle. She was fine on the big ship with its crew of one-thousand-ish, its massive feel and steady gravity. But the smaller ships. They really got to her. And she was just as scared now as she’d been the first time.

“Get it together,” she mumbled to herself. “Get it together or they’ll fire you and ship your sorry ass back to Earth.”

And Earth was the last place she wanted to go back too. She had beaten out hundreds of candidates for this slot. Her parents had paid bribes and called in every favor they’d had. Masaki had done favors for three of the stakeholders, and if she failed at this she was going to spend the rest of her life doing more of the same, because that’s how things worked in the United Earth Federation, and she hated it.

Things were better on the Korbinian Boyer, the starship up in orbit, where competence and merit seemed to carry more weight. Or at least they had been so far. Which meant she’d have to prove herself on this mission. And she couldn’t do that if she didn’t get over her fear of flying in shuttles.

“You coming or what?” Carter’s voice drifted up from the deck below.

“I’ll be right there,” Masaki said and unbuckled the acceleration harness with trembling fingers.

Well, at least, she’d let go of the armrests. Surely that had to count for something.

The purpose of this trip was to get a closer look at the anomaly the Korbinian Boyer’s drones had picked up when they’d done a high-altitude pass over this planet, currently known only as M-204985z. While M-204985z had the virtue of being very Earth-like, it had been at the bottom of the list for further exploration or development. It had only caught the Boyer’s attention because of what looked like a quantum communication signal coming from the planet. The drones had made a second pass over the region to verify their readings, but found that the quantum signal source had moved. A third pass had confirmed the movement.

When Masaki had seen the readings she’d insisted that they check them out. Her boss had reluctantly agreed that it might be something, but he’d only given her three days to find out what. Otherwise the Boyer would have to expend fuel to slow down, make orbit, and then reverse the process to resume its path. That was a major change in mission parameters, one that no one was willing to authorize without a better reason than what Masaki had given them.

By the time Masaki made it down the ladder, the adrenaline in her system had dissipated, and she was feeling better. Carter and Karolina were checking their sidearms, bantering about getting back to the Boyer in time for a gaming tournament.

“How close are we to the anomaly?” Masaki asked.

“It’s a bit of a hike,” Carter said.

“I’m guessing, the rest of today and part of tomorrow,” Karolina said as she opened up one of the supply lockers. Within, one of the robotic pack mules was folded up with its legs tucked underneath it.

“That’s going to cut it close,” Masaki said.

She did the math inside her head, accounting for the standard Earth day, M-204985z’s day (which was a bit longer), and coming up with only hours in which to actually find and assess the anomaly.

“That only gives me six hours,” Masaki said, “maybe seven. That’s not a lot.”

“With no other place to land,” Carter said, “this is the best I could do, or risk damage to the Yeager.”

“I understand,” Masaki said. “It wasn’t a complaint, just an observation.”

It took them the better part of an hour to load two mules down with gear and head on out.

Karolina lowered the cargo bay doors. Air and sunlight rushed in and sent goosebumps scrambling up Masaki’s arms. Sure, she’d stepped on other worlds before. But always in some kind of environmental suit.

This was the first time she’d breathed in unfiltered alien air, felt unfiltered alien light on her skin. The air was crisp, chilly, and filled with woody scents that weren’t quite right.

Carter and Karolina led the two mules down the ramp, their weighed-down stomps making the ramp vibrate. They reached the bottom, and Carter turned around.

“You coming, newbie?” he asked, a smirk on his face.

Masaki’s steps echoed as she made her way down the ramp. Carter had brought them down in a small clearing, something that looked like it had recently burned, probably from a lightning strike. Fresh shoots were pushing their way up from the soil. Karolina and the mules were already at the tree line when Masaki took that first step off the Yeager.

The sounds of the ramp lifting behind her didn’t take away from that first sight as she looked up at the triple suns. The main star dwarfed the other two a thousand times over, but still, to see such a sight over trees and mountains so familiar . . .

“First time?” Carter asked.

“Yeah.”

*   *   *

Deviltree broke from the herd of eight-legs when they settled in for the night, taking refuge between some of the larger boulders by the riverbank. He recalled the flux, taking it back into himself and dove into the river.

The silver-darts were plentiful this time of the season. He didn’t even have to form a net out of his flux to trap them. Instead, he dove in, shifted his vision so they were easier to see and stabbed them with the points of his long-fingers.

Once stabbed, he flicked them out of the water, onto the shore.

Usually, he’d come up for air as needed, but he was in a hurry, so he formed the flux into a snorkel and used it to breathe.

When he counted two eights of stabbed and ejected silver-darts, he surfaced and sent out his flux to settle over them. Most of them had stilled, either from the stab or from suffocation. A few were still alive though, their hearts beating frantically, the electrical impulses from their brains tapping out frenzied codes.

Deviltree had given up trying to decode those signals. At first, he’d tried decoding them because he desperately wanted to communicate. But there was nothing there—a rudimentary intelligence, a sentience, yes, but no sapience. No tree-devilness.

And then he’d realized that if he found sapience, he could not feed on them. Not the way he wanted to anyway. It was one thing to stuff their corpses into his face-slit and ingest them that way, converting their matter to energy. It was another to truly feed and satiate himself, to reach into their minds, to taste their sentience and feed his flux directly.

The flux had learned to do without. It had stopped complaining to him about the lack of proper sustenance, the lack of presence. It was at times like this—when the ebb of life left his food—that the flux was most tempted, that it reached out and sampled the waning life and drank it in, one bioelectrical reaction, one quantized unit at a time.

He allowed his flux to hurry the inevitable, told himself that the silver-darts would have died anyway, even if he hadn’t chosen to feed on them. The flux shimmered, giving off sparks of light, sending energy back and forth along their connection, making Deviltree shiver with pleasure, with delight, and then finally, guilt.

Once all the silver-darts were dead, the flux flowed back under his scales, and he grasped the nearest carcass with his right upper forelimb, turning it over this way and that. It rested across his four fingers, a soft, silver mass against the tough exterior of his bark-like skin. He looked at it for another moment, ignoring his hunger.

The silver-darts were covered in scales like he was, but they weren’t him. No flux came out from beneath their scales. They were not tree-devils. And he could not mimic them. They were too small.

Not that any of the creatures on this planet had ever shown any sign of hesitation, of remorse, of guilt when they hunted him, when they’d tried to kill and eat him. Not one. No matter their size.

When the two eights of silver-darts were no more, Deviltree set out in the direction of the sky-cutter. He passed landmarks he recognized—the cave with the tall but narrow opening, the copse of trees covered in slimy bioluminescent fungus that tasted vile and made him sick, the large hive of stinger-flies that had eaten some of his flux and made him feel disoriented until he cut off contact with those particles.

And as he got closer, an electromagnetic buzz, like a memory, hummed underneath all the sounds of the forest, turning from particles to waves and back, tempting the flux particles to emerge so that he had to exert his will over them and make them stay within.

Back and forth the signal went, wave, particle, sometimes both, drawing him toward the sky-cutter.

He sped up, eager, curious, and a little frightened.

*   *   *

Even with the mules patrolling the camp, Masaki had a hard time sleeping. She was not just sore from the hike, but this planet’s gravity was actually higher than Earth’s. Not by much, just 3 percent, but it seemed that was all it took. That, and having lived aboard the Boyer for the last two years, where the only exercise someone like her got was when she made it to the gym.

Both Carter and Karolina were doing better than she was. Being ex-military, they seemed to have no trouble keeping up with the mules, even while wearing backpacks.

Masaki was pretty sure the blister forming on her right toe was going to pop soon. She’d wanted nothing more than to sit down and catch her breath, but she’d said nothing, opting instead to put on a brave face as she brought up the rear once again.

The next day, M-204985z’s triple suns were at their apex when they reached their destination. The little red dot on their gauntlets told them so, letting out a beep as the dot swelled and the grid in the background expanded.

Carter was tapping on his gauntlet, his face in shadow from the brim of his cap. He looked around, disappointment on his face.

“What did you expect?” Masaki asked. “A monolith?”

“Apes dancing around a monolith, actually,” he deadpanned. “Bonus points for uplifting music and if they are brandishing large femurs as weapons.”

“No,” Karolina said, “bonus points if they’re banging out uplifting music on drums using said femurs.” She dropped her pack and took off her cap, wiping at her sweat-darkened hair.

“The target area is about half a mile in diameter,” Masaki said. “We’ll have to look around.”

“Sounds good.” Carter reached for his canteen and took a drink. “We’ll set up camp here. We’ll take care of that. Masaki, your six hours start now. Do your thing. I’ll send a report to the shuttle for relay.”

Masaki walked past the mule Karolina was unpacking. Carter had gone off into the trees, probably for a bio-break.

“You going to be okay, exploring on your own?” Karolina asked.

“Yes, I think so. Survey said no large predators on this continent. I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a wild goose chase.” That was Masaki’s biggest fear—that she’d wasted everyone’s time. She’d never live it down. Maybe she should have let her boss talk her out of this.

“Have you ever chased a quantum entangled goose before?” Karolina asked as she worked the mule’s straps.

“We don’t really know if it’s quantum entangled,” Masaki said. “We just think it might be. It’s very similar to our quantum encryption, that’s all.”

Karolina dug into one of the supply cases and pulled out a gun and holster. She held them out to Masaki.

“Just in case,” Karolina said.

“I’m a horrible shot,” Masaki admitted.

“You passed all the qualifiers, didn’t you?”

She had, sort of. One of the bribes had gone to let her retake that test. Reluctantly, she reached for the gun belt and lashed it to her thigh. As she shifted her weight and pivoted her foot to cinch the holster’s bottom strap, her blister popped.

She winced and fought off the urge to stomp her foot and swear at it.

“Help is just a call away,” Karolina said, raising her gauntleted arm.

They did a radio-check to make sure the gauntlets were working.

Masaki took one of her specialized cases, the one with her detectors, set it on the ground, and opened it up. It took a precious twenty minutes to set it all up, but she finally got what could be interpreted as a signal in the easterly direction. They might not be able to decode the signal, but it was definitely there.

Carter was busy digging a fire pit, and Karolina had one of the mules propped awkwardly on three legs as she changed out a component on its fourth leg.

“Looks like there’s something toward that white rock face,” Masaki said.

Carter looked up. “We’ll follow as soon as we’re done here.”

Masaki picked up another one of her cases, the one with tools for taking samples and beacons for marking finds, and set off toward the rock face.

Birds—or this planet’s equivalent—flitted overhead, and on occasion an insect would fly nearby, but so far nothing had landed on them. Maybe humans didn’t smell or taste right. As Earthlike as M-204985z was, it didn’t need mosquitos.

Fifteen minutes later she was looking up at the rock face. It looked like a giant wall of white quartz that would be blindingly beautiful when the light hit it just right.

Her inner scientist was bristling at having to ignore all the strange bugs and worms and flowers. She quelled it by looking down at the countdown timer. If she was right, and there was something here, like a quantum encrypted beacon, then the Boyer would change its mission, and they’d have all the time they needed to explore and catalogue this place properly. Until then, her inner anal retentiveness was just going to have to shut up.

She came up to the rock wall that her instruments were insisting was the source of the signal. Bushes covered the base of the rock and she wasn’t quite sure if the small, white sort-of-triangles littering the ground were stone or bone.

Masaki bent down to pick one up and passed it in front of her hand-held analyzer. It flashed a “possibly organic” answer at her.

She looked at it more closely. Roughly an inch long, it had a rounded triangular shape to it, almost like a seashell. It wasn’t all that strange. She’d found seashells when hiking on Earth too. Once those Earthly mountains had been under the sea. No reason to expect it to be different here, even though the “seashell” wasn’t.

She was going to have to get closer to the rock. And that meant moving the bushes aside. Those thorns didn’t look very friendly. Gloves first.

She dug around in her backpack.

“You want a hand with that?”

She looked up. Carter had followed her. He’d brought one of the mules as well and told it “Patrol mode.” The mule took off, loping through the trees like a decapitated deer.

“Sure,” she said, pulling on gloves. “I need to get behind these bushes. Give me a hand?”

“I have a better idea,” Carter said and pulled his machete out of its thigh holster.

He gave her a wicked grin that made her laugh.

“Fine, have at it,” she said and moved aside, taking out her portable scanner in the hopes that whatever signal the drones had detected was nearby. She got the same intermittent, maybe-something-maybe-nothing pattern and scowled at it.

Carter spent about ten minutes hacking at the pencil-thin branches with far too much enthusiasm. His motions sent beetle-like insects scurrying up the rock face.

It took a few more moments for Masaki to realize that the marks on the rock face were not beetles. She moved closer, her hand out.

Whatever had made the marks had the ability to go about a quarter of an inch deep, in precise, evenly spaced groups, a combination of dots and dashes.

Goosebumps rose on her arms, and her heart was beating so hard it was the only sound she heard, like the rest of the world had simply faded.

“What is it?” Carter asked.

She ran her finger over the markings. “I can’t be sure, but . . .” She had to stop and swallow the lump forming in her throat. Her skin tingled, her stomach too.

“See these dots—one, two, three. Then this dash. That’s four. Over and over again. All the way from the bottom to here.” The markings only went as high as her shoulders. Well, almost.

Carter frowned at her. “I don’t understand.”

“Someone made these. These aren’t natural.”

“You can’t know that.”

He had a point. Sort of.

“Look at it like this. If you or I were stuck here or tallying something, we might make tally marks like this.” She picked up a stick and used it to make four vertical marks in the dirt. Then she ran a fifth tally mark through the first four.

“Yes, that I get,” he said.

“So, each group is five, and two of these are ten.”

He nodded.

“We use such tally marks because we have five fingers and two hands. We use them because we use base ten.”

“Uh-huh.”

“These are base eight.” Or maybe sixteen. No, don’t complicate it.

He looked from the tally mark on the ground to the ones on the rock and back again.

“If this is not some natural phenomenon.” He said it like he hoped that she was wrong.

“Correct.”

“Could it be natural?” he asked.

“I’m a mathematician, not a exobiologist,” she said. “There is life on this planet. It’s similar enough to Earth, maybe there is a lifeform here that can count.”

“An eight-fingered lifeform.”

“That would follow, yes.”

“An intelligent alien lifeform.”

She nodded.

“Well, damn.”

*   *   *

The sky-cutter was exactly where it was supposed to be, in a clearing not far from Deviltree’s old lair. He approached it with caution, surrounded by his flux. It had formed around him like a shield, enclosing him in a cloud of swirling color, ready to reform as needed, or make him fade into the background.

From the tree line he sent out the flux, making it unfurl like a ribbon from his body. It snaked toward the sky-cutter, through the grass, slithering forth like a snake. The sky-cutter was quiet and still, and had been ever since he’d reached it, except for the humming, the buzz that had drawn Deviltree to it.

The harmonics were just familiar enough that he could tell that the sky-cutter was like the music-maker in his old lair before he’d damaged it in a fit of rage. He couldn’t remember what had enraged him, only that he’d woken from the rage, and the music-maker’s sounds had not returned to the old pattern. And that there had been fire.

He didn’t want to think about it. Those kind of thoughts led to ruin, to long stretches of time where he hid in darkness, where he went to dark places that hurt but could not be escaped.

These harmonics were the opposite of those dark places. They sent out pulses that ordered the flux into standing waves. He let the flux particles order themselves until they were all formed into a wave with himself and the ship as nodes. The anti-nodes took form as he halved the distance, making the scales covering his body vibrate and release more flux.

Something in the sky-cutter was drawing him in, drawing him closer, calling him via his flux.

He knew that the silver-gray shell of the sky-cutter was not alive, was not what was calling to him. Nor was the sky-cutter like the mountain. Inside, it was mostly hollow. Its harmonics told him so.

Inside, he must get inside.

And as soon as the thought formed, the flux collapsed from the standing wave it had been drawn into and enveloped the sky-cutter. There was a small imperfection in the sky-cutter’s skin, one which a flux particle pushed open, drawing others with it like a bead on a string.

In they went, to gather information and send it back through their connection to him, that unquantifiable thing that kept him and his flux connected in ways beyond the physical.

Deviltree closed his eyes, concentrated on the flux, on the information being sent back.

How much of his flux—of himself—did he dare send inside?

He tested it, pulled some of the particles back. Mostly they obeyed, so he sent them back in and lost himself in the sensory overload of new information—the frequencies, textures, the colors, the scents, all the strange molecules and substances.

There was nothing living inside the sky-cutter, but there was a strange facsimile of a creature and next to it, a bundle of fibers—keratinized protein. The flux flowed around the fibers, sampled it.

Billions of bits of information were processed, and a high probability was calculated. The calculations suggested that the keratinized protein had once belonged to the creature in the facsimile, specifically, the fibers covering the creature’s head.

No shell, no scales, no flux.

No tree-devilness.

Nevertheless, now that he had all that information, now that he’d sampled it, assimilated it, he could—

Oh, how interesting.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. The Deviltree by Monalisa Foster

Back To Top
0
    0
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop